Inside the auditorium of Monaco’s €55 million training base, the club’s sporting director Paul Mitchell reflects on his first days in the job in June 2020.
This was amid the COVID-19 crisis that handicapped European football’s capacity to spend in the transfer market, as commercial, broadcasting and ticketing income all took a nosedive.
Owing to the pandemic, building work had slowed down on the expensive regeneration of the club’s training facility and the perception, at least externally, was that Monaco had lost their way since lifting the Ligue 1 title in 2017, when they also reached the Champions League semi-finals during the same season under coach Leonardo Jardim.
Over time, the club cashed in on numerous key players, including Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Fabinho, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Thomas Lemar for combined fees that approached €400 million. When the rebuild came, however, the club’s reinvestment went wrong, and by the end of the 2018-19 season, the club escaped relegation from the French top flight by only two points. The following season was mediocre rather than disastrous, as Monaco finished 9th, but a malaise set in and the club’s Russian owner Dmitry Rybolovlev decided a different strategy was necessary.
Mitchell recalls: “When I arrived, none of this training centre was yet in place. Really, we should have taken imagery on the first day. I asked the head of player care to gather the players and staff for a meeting on the one pitch we had. We were working in cabins designed to be built for two years but they had been here from 2014, so I had a very natural shower coming in from one corner of my office.
“I remember presenting on the pitch and thinking ‘wow we have one training pitch and 77 players registered’. It was like someone had given out a flyer for people to come and train at Monaco.
“There were initial short-term problems; how do we stagger training and house players during COVID when you only have one pitch, for example? So, we were in the deep end, trying to make an assessment and build a squad in the image of how we believe it should be played, while also not missing the potential of an inherited player.”
As a case in point, Mitchell cites how the young midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and central defender Benoit Badiashile both found themselves on the bench in the final games before the first lockdown in spring 2020, shortly before he arrived at the club. Two years on, Monaco developed Tchouameni, now 22, to the point he was sold for over €100 million to Real Madrid this summer, while 21-year-old Badiashile is among the most highly-rated young defenders in Europe.
In the last two seasons, Monaco have discovered a sense of stability, securing two consecutive third-place finishes while stripping down their squad to an average age of 24.8 last season (the second lowest in Ligue 1), and introducing nine academy players to the first-team squad. The changes to recruitment have been mirrored in the club’s attempts to revolutionise the playing style of the first-team, with a high energy and highly physical approach favoured by Mitchell, who previously helped develop similar models at RB Leipzig, as well as Tottenham and Southampton during Mauricio Pochettino’s period at those clubs.
The club’s director of performance James Bunce previously served as the director of high performance for the US soccer national teams (including the 2019 Women’s World Cup-winning team) and he sets out the evidence of this change by referencing data accumulated by the football analytics platform SkillCorner.
In the 2019-20 season, before Mitchell and Bunce arrived, the club ranked 76th across the top five European leagues for total distance covered, 85th for high speed running, 39th for sprint distance and 88th for accelerations. Last season, Monaco improved these numbers to the extent they were 3rd for total distance, 3rd for high-speed running, 3rd for sprint distance and 23rd for accelerations. For the uninitiated, total distance refers to every metre a team runs on the pitch at any speed. High speed running refers to anything up to 24-25km per hour, while sprint distance is anything above 25 km per hour. Accelerations are more complex to measure, Bunce explains, because “it is an impact, a hit into the ground and a turn”.
In Ligue 1, the club were top last season for every one of those metrics and when they beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-0 in March, Monaco recorded 26 per cent more high speed runs than their opponents on the day, demonstrating their physical dominance. This was the springboard for a devastating 10-match run to end the Ligue 1 season, as Monaco won nine and drew one to secure a Champions League third-round qualifying place this August. Mitchell’s own reputation has continued to soar, with his name regularly reported as a possible target for Chelsea and Manchester United.
This week, Monaco invited The Athletic behind the scenes, to shadow performance staff, observe training and pull up the blinds at one of European football’s most compelling projects.
Travel up the winding roads towards Monaco’s performance centre in La Turbie and it does not take too long to understand why anybody might be tempted to relocate. For a long time, the principality of Monaco has been billed as the playground to the millionaires (and a few billionaires); home to sports cars, casinos, champagne and some of the world’s most expensive yachts. As for the football club, it became a byword for excess by the summer of 2020.
Six months before accepting the Monaco role, Mitchell received an initial approach from the principality club, but at the time he was working with the former interim Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick as Red Bull Leipzig’s head of recruitment and development. Operating across Red Bull’s network of clubs across several continents, he was happy and rejected the approach, but Monaco’s leadership returned.
He says: “We went into lockdown and my sister-in-law passed away from a tragic accident and it made me consider the time I was spending away from family with all the travelling.
“Coincidentally, the Monaco CEO Oleg Petrov came back and said that he and the president didn’t feel I had given them the platform to listen and explain what they are trying to do here. I have to say — he was correct at the time. He caught me in a moment where I was at deliberation with Red Bull about how I could adjust my role or take some time away. This was one or two western European clubs as a base (as the Monaco ownership also own Belgian club Cercle Bruges). I knew it would be a massive challenge; one of the biggest of my career. Most people in the football world knew our football investments were in quite ill-health in many parts of performance.”
Mitchell was aware of external perceptions of the club.
“That was the conversation I had with the president, vice-president and CEO,” Mitchell says. “Did they really want change or was this just an opportunity to take someone who has a bit of status in the market to paper over the cracks that had developed here? They convinced me they wanted to modernise and innovate and go in a different strategic direction. There were rumours everybody had heard about the way we operate here. But people can now see a commonality in the people we recruit; an age profile and a potential we need to see in acquisitions. To simplify it, the first question we always need to answer is a performance question — nothing else. We always ask: ‘Are we helping to instigate the best positive performance we possibly can?’”
Key staff followed Mitchell. Bunce joined to head up the performance department, having previously worked with Mitchell at Southampton, while Laurence Stewart, previously at Everton, leads recruitment. Yann Le Meur, who was made the club’s head of athletic development earlier this year, has worked with French Olympic teams and athletes, as well as the tennis star Daniil Medvedev. Staff at the club speak in awestruck tones about the impact of Tyler Heap, the club’s American head of sporting technology and insights, who was also poached from the US Soccer Federation. Monaco use the consultancy service of Paul Burgess, who previously worked for Real Madrid and Arsenal — he was dubbed the “Galactico Groundsman” by the Spanish newspaper Marca for his work perfecting the pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Mitchell’s background — and much of the external attention he receives — has centred on his recruitment work. At Southampton, he assisted the acquisitions of Sadio Mane and Dusan Tadic, while at Tottenham, he played a significant role in signings such as Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min, Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier. His time at Leipzig saw the club recruit players such as Christopher Nkunku, Tyler Adams and Dani Olmo.
In the past week alone, Mitchell, who grew up near Manchester, was reported to be a target for Chelsea’s new chairman Todd Boehly, while links with Manchester United are frequent. Is there anything in it? The 40-year-old says: “If there is speculation with the size of organisations that you mention, it can only be seen as a positive for myself and for Monaco. It shows we are doing a good job and disturbing the market in a good way.
“You can never say never. I am from England and one day — I am still relatively a young man — I will go back to the Premier League and to friends and family back there as well. But I am still enjoying my work, and while agreements are still in place with the majority shareholder here and the processes of working are still in place, I suspect I am still going to be here. But I see it as a great reflection not only of me but the people working here that brands like that are mentioned in the same sentence as myself.”
Since joining Monaco, Mitchell has signed a cast of young talent. For a combined €80 million, he signed seven players aged 23 or below at the time of joining: Brazilian full-backs Vanderson and Caio Henrique, the Brazilian midfielder Jean Lucas, the French defender Axel Disasi, German defender Ismail Jakobs, Senegalese winger Krepin Diatta, and the Dutch forward Myron Boadu.
Vanderson, Henrique and Disasi in particular have already risen substantially in value and would command large fees on the market.
There have been more senior additions such as Kevin Volland from Bayer Leverkusen for €11 million in 2020, who scored or assisted a total of 33 goals in his first two seasons at the club, and Takumi Minamino, who joined from Liverpool this summer.
What are the key principles Mitchell seeks in a player?
He explains: “Working with Mauricio (Pochettino) shaped certain non-negotiables but as my journey continued, these have been sculpted as well as moulded. I like to analyse what the future game looks like and evolve our style and recruitment to adapt to that, so we are buying for then as well as now. I like my teams to be a reflection of me; I’d like to say hard working, a level of humility, controlled aggression and the potential to add physicality.
“In my first meeting with the fans here, they said to me, ‘We can accept losing to a degree, but only if we can be proud of the team in defeat’. That stuck with me. Our average age means we will lose some games but as a football fan, we want to see a desire to compete in our teams. My non-negotiables are that players control the controllables; be as professional as you can, put high performance at the centre of everything, be humble as a team, always come off the pitch having given the maximum and be prepared to push the boundaries.”
Yet while Mitchell’s recruitment is praised, he stresses the job of a sporting director is to build a high performance organisation, rather than simply “getting carried away by the ego of player signings”. This, he explains, means improving players that came before.
He cites the 22-year-old winger Sofiane Diop and the 20-year-old Eliot Matazo as “players 78 and 79 when arrived, because they were coming from the academy” but both now form part of the first-team players. If reports in French newspaper L’Equipe are to be believed, then Diop has been watched by Leicester City and Borussia Dortmund, while Matazo made 28 first-team appaerances last season. The emphasis on the club’s academy is underlined as the coaches of the club’s under-19 and under-17 sides are both in attendance to watch first-team training, as well as the academy director, while first-team head coach Philippe Clement has taken eight academy players to train during the first weeks of pre-season.
Yet the obvious focus and proof of success can be found in Tchouameni.
“At Red Bull, we were tracking every young player,” Mitchell explains, “But Tchouameni wasn’t a mainstay of Bordeaux’s team when Monaco signed him as an 18-year-old. Everyone knew he had talent and Monaco moved quickly. But there was a habit of spending big amounts on multiple players, which led to 77 (being registered at the club), so it was less a strategic profile and more spread betting. Monaco had spent €350 million in the two years before I arrived, which was the fifth-biggest spend in the world, but we knew there was talent (within the 77), and we saw players who needed structure and process to help them.
“Aurelien flourished because of the work he did as well as what we did. You have to be comfortable with parts of journey that are uncomfortable; he has to learn through mistakes, he has to learn through the team suffering in some moments, that is the learning experience to become a great player.”
Mitchell says his objective at Monaco is three-fold; to protect the club as a business, to inspire high performance and to develop footballers. The aim is to do all this while challenging at the top of French football and “creating an exciting footprint in European football”. One of the key benefits of developing a high-energy playing style is that it proves to potential buyers at the top end of the market that Monaco players would be able to cope in their system.
Bunce explains: “We are trying to develop world-class players that can be sold for £100 million and compete in Europe. We can’t start that process when we get into the Champions League, we have to do it even when we are not in it. When we had no European football late in the season, we still trained double days on Wednesdays to replicate playing two games per week. We benchmark against every club in Europe. We know the biggest clubs analyse the same data platforms and they would have seen Aurelien’s physicality. You are not gambling on his physicality because you can see it here every week.
“We have had opposing managers talk about our physicality being a problem, saying ‘they are so relentless, they come at us so quick’. Our players tell us that they feel they can run over teams in the 90th minute. It is why they tolerate doing what they do; nobody likes running and maybe they would like it to be easier but they know the reward. Aurelien developed well with us in the first year, but then in the second year, he was in the 90th percentile of metrics for most things, and grew massively physically in that time. He trains hard, he works hard, he is interested in what he does, he wants to know his targets, he wants to know his preventative training. He deserves his transfer.”
Set against the rockface of an old stone quarry, Monaco’s performance centre at La Turbie provides a charming and scenic setting. It is shortly after 8am on the players designated floor of the training ground and, one by one, they shuffle in to greet the club’s sports scientists. Every day, the players begin by completing a subjective questionnaire, in which they detail the quality and length of their previous night’s sleep. Monaco defender Ruben Aguilar, for example, had reported poorer sleep as he has a young child, so the club assisted him by offering a hotel room for the evening before matches.
“We can talk about ice baths and beet juice but sleep is the optimal mechanism for recovery,” says Bunce.
Some players choose to wear Oura rings to closely monitor their own sleep. This measures rapid eye movement, body movement, heart rate variability and various other objective markers that go beyond an individual’s own impression of their sleep.
When players do double training sessions (and there are plenty of those at Monaco), they also have the option of napping in the club’s sleep room. Monaco have a number of Dreamboxes, which feature 30-minute or 90-minute nap settings with various selections of meditation and mood music that can be selected on an iPad.
During the morning questionnaire, players are also asked to identify any new soreness. One player highlights swelling on his ankle from the previous day’s training and this information informs the coaching staff’s plans for the player in the session. His individual recovery is also modified, so will spend some time on the club’s underwater treadmill. Bunce explains: “It sinks under water and jets come into you to create resistance as though you are running up a hill. It’s a little like the anti-gravity treadmill (Monaco have one of those too) but this allows you to do multi direction and side to sides. It’s really big in America — every big sports team has one there.”
The players are then tested for COVID-19 and weighed daily while the sports scientists also take a blood sample, which is processed immediately on a rapid blood analysis machine called a Fujifilm NX500. The data collected is presented on an easily accessible dashboard for the club’s coaching staff. Small visual symbols flag any concerns in relation to sleep, DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), CPK (creatine kinase), body fatigue, vigilance, mental fatigue or COVID-19. The creatine kinase test is particularly valuable because it is used to detect any inflammation of muscles by demonstrating that an enzyme has spiked in the bloodstream.
Bunce explains that if, for example, Monaco performed a light session the previous day and then CPK spikes, it may be because the player is fighting off an internal infection, or it may be the light session has challenged the player more than expected, or it can also be an indicator that a player has gone off on his own and done a private session separate to the club, which is an increasing challenge across European football. This data is all taken within 15 minutes of a player’s arrival and by 9.15am, all players are in the gym for personalised routines.
“It starts as soon as you arrive at the centre,” says Monaco player Aguilar, whose metrics last season improved to the extent he became the highest-ranked player across Europe’s top five leagues for high speed running and among the highest for accelerations. He adds: “It is true that the staff ask more and more of the players as the seasons go by, but I find it very motivating.”
In the training ground canteen, the club’s nutritionist Juan Morillas is on call seven days per week to provide individualised recommendations to players. The club obliges players to eat both breakfast and lunch in the club canteen, where herbs and vegetables are grown on site, and Morillas floats around, prescribing the exact amount of macros of protein, fats and carbohydrates each player requires. He also sends instructions to the growing cast of personal chefs employed by players to cook their evening meals. Club chefs also appear on the pitch at the end of morning training with protein shakes and fresh fruit to optimise recovery.
All the gadgets and gizmos of modern sport are available. Down the corridor from the sports scientists and the dressing room is the office belonging to the club’s full-time psychologist. He is on hand to provide mental health support but also offers assistance for pre-match routines and he joins coaching staff on the pitch, with an iPad, to encourage players to reap the benefits of using imagery and visualisation to enhance performance. It might, for example, be used for finishing drills or set-piece takers.
There is then the swimming pool, ice baths, hot baths and various recovery treatments including compression therapy, in addition to red light therapy, which Bunce says can stimulate mitochondria to produce enzymes that encourage recovery. The club’s gym was designed by the same British company, Perform Better, that kitted out the English Football Association’s national base at St. George’s Park. In the analysis suite, the cameras that record training are remote-controlled from inside the building, while drones are also flown to capture footage. On the previous day, a player suffered an injury in training and staff were able to watch the session back to identify the mechanism that triggered the knock.
As the players exit the building for training, their boots are hanging up alongside their shirt number. Many players like to wear a boot size that is one too small, but these are expanded a little by the warmth of an on-site steamer, specifically for their boots. In the physio room, there are facilities for the full-time podiatrists. After all, feet are where footballers make their money. Bunce adds: “There is a lot of damage to toes and nails for footballers and the podiatrist also works closely on designing insoles to address any imbalances.”
The investment in the team behind the team has been provided by the owner Rybolovlev, who Forbes estimate to be worth $6.6 billion. He once bought (and subsequently sold) an oceanfront Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump for $95 million, while he owns a superyacht and an airbus. European football’s Financial Fair Play rules — which work along the premise of clubs needing to run as sustainable businesses — mean that he has decided to move the club’s strategy away from excess spending on transfer fees. The club’s commercial operation is limited by home attendances that rarely surpass 10,000 in league games, which means the strategy now is to work smarter on facilities, innovation and player development.
Rybolovlev is not on the list of Russians sanctioned in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and as such, he remains free to own Monaco. Rybolovlev, who sold his controlling stake in Russian fertilizer producer Uralkali in 2010, has spent a decade attempting to offer the impression of distance between himself from Vladimir Putin’s regime. He was initially named in the Putin Accountability Act lodged with the US Congress on January 19 but has not been sanctioned. US president Joe Biden was given 60 days to decide whether he should face them but that time has now elapsed without any sanctions being imposed. In the meantime, payments from both Monaco and Cercle Bruges, the Belgian club also owned by Rybolovlev, were made to the International Red Cross to provide humanitarian aid. “It is absolutely crucial to support those who are suffering the most,” said the Monaco owner.
The owner now possesses one of the most physically intense teams in modern football. For leading clubs in French football, this represented a step change. Last season, for example, PSG and Marseille were among the lowest teams recorded for key metrics in physical intensity.
Bunce says: “When I joined, I stated to my staff and to the ownership that I wanted Monaco to be an outlier within the French system. It is not known to be the top physical league, which is often the Premier League with teams like Liverpool and Leeds. I didn’t want us to just conform and be doing OK in our own French league. We don’t want to accept people saying it is not possible, or accept it when people say a coach cannot individualise a training session, or when people say that players cannot eat two meals a day together, or that players might not have their blood taken. When people believe a player won’t do it, the conversation dies.
“It is possible; with conviction, courage and collective buy-in. That means explaining things to players. You do have to endure the period of things being new and making them a habit. We have one of the best sporting directors in world football but also one of the bravest and most logical. He will not accept the argument of ‘yeah, but football has always done it that way’. His view is ‘why would we do it in any direction that can lead to lower performance?’. I believe you can do this with high ego players, too, if you have structure and conviction.”
Not that it has all been straightforward.
In January this year, Monaco took the decision to remove head coach Niko Kovac, who had been Mitchell’s first major appointment when he arrived in the summer of 2020 to replace Roberto Moreno. Kovac ended his only full campaign in 3rd place and just five points behind title winners Lille. Yet the first half of his second campaign did not go to plan. Monaco lost against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League play-offs, despite performing well, but concerns developed about the clubs showing in the French league. After 19 games, the former Bayern Munich manager Kovac was dismissed with Monaco in 6th place. The Guardian newspaper described the decision as “eye-wateringly ruthless and bafflingly naive”.
Yet at no point in the season had Monaco been in the top five of the division and on many metrics, the team were trending towards mid-table. Monaco replaced Kovac with Clement, the coach who won the Belgian title in the three previous seasons — twice with Club Bruges and once before with Genk. He has been credited with the development of Charles De Ketelaere, the young Belgian forward currently being pursued by Leeds United and AC Milan. Yet it did not start well at Monaco, as Clement won only three of his first nine Ligue 1 matches, fell at the semi-final stage of the Coupe de France against Nantes and exited the Europa League against Braga by the middle of March.
Mitchell concedes: “The new coach was understanding the challenge of the league, which is far better than people give it credit for. He had a tough March. It’s a small sample of games but it’s where belief and confidence are affected. When staff are disbelieving or your owner might be disbelieving, you need to bring it back together. When you have a project driven by young players who we want to grow, fail and learn, it takes time.
“I won’t pretend there haven’t been moments here where trust and confidence have been challenged internally and externally and I have to lead to the front and bring people back to the first agreement.”
Yet after exiting the Europa League, the most remarkable thing happened: Monaco became unbeatable. They demolished PSG and won nine games in a row to close the season. It would have been 10 if not for a 96th-minute equaliser by Lens in a final day 2-2 draw.
Defender Aguilar says: “There are several factors such as the fact that we never gave up psychologically. We also did a lot of physical work when coach Clement arrived, the sessions became more intense, focused on athletic work to make us gain power and speed and it paid off.”
Bunce recalls: “When Philippe lost a few games, he rang me one night and said, ‘We change nothing because this is right and we keep going’. We did not bend from the project.”
On June 18, Monaco’s players were back at La Turbie for testing and the first session of pre-season was underway two days later. The club’s physical preparation is essential in a constricted summer, particularly as they will compete in a Champions League third qualifying round fixture as soon as August 2 or 3.
During The Athletic’s day behind-the-scenes, one of the most striking aspects of the experience is the extent of joined-up thinking between the club’s sports science practitioners and the coaching staff. Following the morning testing, which had followed a double session with an entire match worth of sprinting the previous day, the sports scientists recommend a session that does not involve sprinting for the players. There are also individualised recommendations that several players should be taken out of the session shortly before the end to reduce risk of injury. Clement takes the feedback on board and is prepared to modify training plans accordingly. Should Monaco progress in the Champions League, they are likely to have as many as 14 matches in seven weeks before the first international break of the season. “We have to start with a sprint in a marathon,” Clement quips.
During the morning gym session, he is present, flitting between the players. Clement says: “Being here is also a good moment to give a message and feel the mood of the players.” For example, he cites a player who can sometimes become overly emotional when things are going against him within a match and he decides to purposely challenge this player in training by placing him with younger team-mates where he will need to develop his leadership skills.
He also encourages the physios to correct gym movements, rather than simply conducting. He says; “Every exercise can be done well in one way but badly in 10 ways.”
Last season, the club recorded player availability of 90 per cent, up from 76 per cent before Mitchell’s arrival. Scrutiny of a player’s injury record is applied during recruitment while it is also logical that younger recruits will be likely to have fewer injuries. Bunce says: “The best injury prevention is good training, so having a coach that embraces sprinting and individualisation is good. We had two players step out of the session today and he is not going ‘you killed my session’ but instead understands the benefit of losing a player for ten minutes to stop you from losing him for six weeks.
“Everything we do as practitioners should be asking how we can influence what goes on on the field. It is irrelevant otherwise. The important thing is to have a relationship with a coach where we don’t suppress them and allow them technical freedom but where we are still able to advise through data tracking.”
The club invited Bunce to form part of the team that spoke to Clement before he formally joined the club. Long gone are the days when managerial decision-making processes are solely the preserve of owners and chairmen.
Bunce says: “When we met Philippe, we spoke about data processes and how he looks at things like training load.”
Mitchell adds: “From what I have seen in intelligent organisations, this is happening more often. We have short, medium and long-term goals. We want to protect a business, inspire high performance and develop players. The interaction between those objectives and leaving the ego at the door is important for us.
“I want a coach who understands the things in place to enable him to get better results. They are not designed to hurt him. The game has moved from the old school manager as you can have 200-300 people to manage at a football club. There is no logic to say a coach can manage all those people well. So to have a coach who operates in a measured, balanced and intelligent way is exactly where a coach should sit.”
Players, too, know they are entering a new and reinvigorated culture at Monaco. Bunce says: “Monaco can be very comfortable and you come here for all the wrong reasons; it’s tax free, it’s sunny, it’s shiny but we tell players, ‘you are going to work, we are relentless, we do double sessions, you have to match our physicality, we have your data, we know your potential to be better. You may be dragged into the gym every day and be made to work, you may be individualised to do more than the next guy, that’s because you need to do it’. If it is not for you, no problem but you can be the next Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Aurelien. We have proven we can develop players worth more than €100 million.”
As for this season, what is the objective? Mitchell is measured. “We want to enhance the work we are doing, be competitive at the top of Ligue 1 and in every cup competition domestically. Then we want to go one step further in the Champions League play-offs and make a footprint in European football.”
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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Inside Monaco: Paul Mitchell, their revamped talent factory and a team that runs and runs
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